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Is the Theology of Religions an Exhausted Project?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 March 2013

Peter Feldmeier
University of St. Thomas


Theology of religions, which grounds a theological approach to non-Christian traditions, has become widely dismissed recently as irrelevant, and even challenged to be inimical to authentic dialogue. This article addresses the critiques and defends the viability and even necessity of a theology of religions. It does so by showing how postmodern insights provide the key to break the deadlock previously constraining theologies of religions.

Copyright © The College Theology Society 2008

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1 Schebera, Richard, “Comparative Theology: A New Method of Interreligious Dialogue,” Dialogue and Alliance 17 (2003): 7.Google Scholar

2 Fredericks, James, Buddhists and Christians: Through Comparative Theology to Solidarity (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2004), 26Google Scholar and Faith among Faiths: Christian Theology and Non-Christian Religions (New York: Paulist, 1999), 9.

3 James Fredericks writes that it is now “time that we recognize that it is not currently possible for Christians to articulate a satisfactory theology of the meaning and status of other religions.” See the review symposium by Phan, Peter C. et al. , of Knitter, Paul, Introducing Theologies of Religions (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2002)Google ScholarHorizons 30 (2003): 118.

4 Clooney, Francis X., “Theology, Dialogue, and Religious Others: Some Recent Books in the Theology of Religions and Related Fields,” Religious Studies Review 29 (2003): 320.Google Scholar

5 See Clooney, Francis, Theology after Vedanta: An Experiment in Comparative Theology (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993), 193–94Google Scholar and Fredericks, Faith among Faiths, 167.Google Scholar

6 Clooney, , “Theology, Dialogue, and Religious Others,” 319.Google Scholar

7 Race, Alan, Christians and Religious Pluralism: Patterns in the Christian Theology of Religions (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1983).Google Scholar

8 Schebera, , “Comparative Theology,” 9.Google Scholar

9 Barnes, Michael argues this persuasively throughout his Theology and the Dialogue of Religions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).Google Scholar See also Feldmeier, Peter, Christianity Looks East: Comparing the Spiritualities of John of the Cross and Bud-dhaghosa (New York: Paulist, 2006), 414.Google Scholar

10 Clooney, , “Theology, Dialogue, and Religious Others,” 320.Google Scholar

11 Fredericks, , “Review Symposium,” 118.Google Scholar

12 Fredericks, , Buddhists and Christians, 27.Google Scholar

13 See prime examples in Clooney, Theology after Vedanta and Fredericks, Faith among Faiths and Buddhists and Christians.

14 Balthasar, Hans Urs von, “Christian and Non-Christian Meditation,” Word and Spirit 1 (1979): 147–66.Google Scholar See also “Buddhism: An Approach to Dialogue,” Communio: International Catholic Review 15 (1988): 403–10.

15 Among many places where Hick argues this, see Hick, John, A Christian Theology of Religions: The Rainbow of Faiths (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1995), 25.Google Scholar

16 See Dupuis, Jacques, Toward a Theology of Religious Pluralism (Maryknoll: NY: Orbis, 1997)Google Scholar and Christianity and the Religions: From Confrontation to Dialogue, trans. Berryman, Philip (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2002).Google Scholar

17 Yong, Amos, Beyond the Impasse: Toward a Pneumatological Theology of Religions (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2003).Google Scholar

18 Haight's, Roger major work in this regard is Jesus: Symbol of God (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1999).Google Scholar Since then, he has continued to mine this perspective. For an excellent synopsis of his approach, see “Pluralist Christology as Orthodox,” in Myth of Religious Superiority: A Multifaith Exploration, ed. Knitter, Paul (Maryknoll: NY: Orbis, 2005), 141–61.Google Scholar

19 Schmidt-Leukel, Perry argues the importance of these questions in “Exclusivism, Inclusivism, Pluralism: The Tripolar Typology—Clarified and Reaffirmed” in Myth of Religious Superiority, 1327.Google Scholar

20 In particular, one could look at Hick, John, “On Grading Religions,” Religious Studies 17 (1981): 453–63.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

21 Duffy, Stephen, “A Theology of Religions and/or Comparative Theology?Horizons 26 (1999): 112.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

22 Knitter, Paul, “Review Symposium,” 128.Google Scholar

23 See Michael Barnes, Theology and Dialogue.

24 See for example, Gadamer, Hans-Georg on pre-understanding in Truth and Method, 2nd rev. ed., trans. Weinsheimer, Joel and Marshall, Donald G. (New York: Crossroad, 1989), 277ffGoogle Scholar; Ricoeur, Paul, Interpretation Theory: Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning (Fort Worth, TX: Texas Christian University Press, 1976)Google Scholar, especially chap. 2; and Schillebeckx, Edward, The Understanding of Faith: Interpretation and Criticism, trans. Smith, N.D. (New York: Seabury, 1974)Google Scholar, especially chap. 7.

25 Duffy, , “A Theology of Religions,” 109–10.Google Scholar As Roger Haight has insightfully noted regarding a theology of religions: “Faith demands a judgment that finds the position closest to what is most authentic, or viable, or true” (“Review Symposium,” 124).

26 A fine compendium can be found in Sullivan, Francis, No Salvation Outside the Church? Tracing the History of the Catholic Response (New York: Paulist, 1992).Google Scholar

27 Lubac's, Henri deCatholicism: Christ and the Common Destiny of Man, trans. Sheppard, L. and Englund, E. (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1988)Google Scholar is a tour de force of patristic and medieval data demonstrating the universal call, grace, and salvation of Christ, present and recognized everywhere. One example: “But among the Gentiles as among the Jews, however far their [fathers of the church] gaze travels, they could discern the Corpus Ecclesiae already in process of formation. For them, in fact, in a certain sense the church was nothing else than the human race itself, in all the phases of its history, insofar as it was to lead to Christ and be quickened by his Spirit … They never lost sight of this vast mass of humanity so long in exile, ‘without God,’ with no hope in the world, wasting itself in apparently vain effort; it was this humanity which Christ came to tear from its idols, which he loves with a gratuitous love in that miserable nakedness which is the result of its sin, which he undertakes to cleanse, to make holy, which he changes from darkness to light, which at the last he makes his bride without spot or wrinkle” (190–91).

28 “If you do not believe that I am he, you will die in your sins” (John 8:24). See also John 1:3; 1:17–18; 3:6; 3:18; 6:28–29; 12:48; 14:6; 1 John 1:12–13; Acts 2:38; 4:12; Rom. 3:23–28; Gal. 3:22; 1 Tim. 2:4–6; 2 Tim. 1:11–12; Titus 3:7.

29 Clooney, , “Theology, Dialogue, and Religious Others,” 319.Google Scholar

30 Many of these are chosen because they suggest grace involving the whole world. See Mark 9:40; John 3:16–17; 8:12; 9:5; 11:9; 12:46; 1 John 2:2; 2:5–6; 4:7–8; 4:12; 6:33; Acts 17:22; Rom. 5:18; 11:32; 1 Cor. 5:19; 15:28; Col. 3:11; Eph. 1:10; and Gal. 5:22–23.

31 See especially the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum), arts. 2 and 4, on universal salvific will of God; the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium), arts. 13 and 14, on all those who cooperate with grace as being associated with the church; the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate), art. 2, on God's engagement with people in other religions; and both the Declaration on Religious Freedom (Dignitatis Humanae), arts. 1–2 and the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes), arts. 16 and 20, on the primacy of conscience and God's working directly on the soul.

32 John Hick most recently has said that the ineffable God spoken of by Thomas Aquinas (Summa contra gentiles, I.14.3) is the same as the Ein Sof of Jewish Kabbalah, the al Haq of Sufism, the Dharmakaya of Mahayana Buddhism and Hindu Brahman, and that descriptions of them and appropriations of their mystery are limited by human subjectivity (“The Next Step Beyond Dialogue,” in The Myth of Religious Superiority, 9).

33 Fredericks, , Faith among Faiths, 113ff.Google Scholar Take, for example, the presumption that all religions point to the same religious experience. Investigating mystical descriptions often suggests that Hindus have Hindu mystical experiences and Christians have Christian mystical experiences, Buddhists have Buddhist experiences, and so on. To say to John of the Cross, “Even through you claim that you are directly experiencing the Trinity, we know that your objective experience, before you subjectively appropriate it through your Christian lens, is the same as Zen satori and that is the same as the Vedanta experience that atman is Brahman,” is an astoundingly assumptive claim. Two informative essays regarding the uniqueness of mystical experiences are Katz, Steven, “The ‘Conservative’ Character of Mystical Experience,” 360Google Scholar and Gimello, Robert, “Mysticism and its Contents,” 6188Google Scholar, both in Mysticism and Religious Traditions, ed. Katz, Steven (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983).Google Scholar

34 See Ratzinger, Joseph Cardinal, Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions, trans. Taylor, Henry (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2004), 4954.Google Scholar

35 See, for example, The Blackwell Guide to the Philosophy of Religion, s.v. “Theology of Religions.”

36 See D'Costa, Gavin, “The Impossibility of a Pluralist View of Religions,” Religious Studies 32 (1996): 2333.CrossRefGoogle Scholar See also his The Meeting of Religions and the Trinity (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2000), 19–52.

37 D'Costa, , The Meeting of Religions, 321.Google Scholar

38 DiNoia, J. Augustine, The Diversity of Religions: A Christian Perspective (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1992), 180.Google Scholar

39 Knitter, Paul, Introducing Theologies of Religion (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2002).Google Scholar

40 Ibid., 13.

41 See Cunningham, Philip, “Implications for Catholic Teaching on Jews and Judaism,” in Sic et Non: Encountering Dominus Iesus, eds. Pope, Stephen and Hefling, Charles (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2002), 140.Google Scholar

42 Merrigan, Terrence, “Jacques Dupuis and the Redefinition of Inclusivism,” in Many and Diverse Ways: In Honor of Jacques Dupuis, eds. Kendall, Daniel and O'Collins, Gerald (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2003), 6071.Google Scholar

43 See Merrigan, Terrence, “The Historical Jesus in the Pluralist Theology of Religions,” in The Myriad Christ and the Quest for Unity in Contemporary Christology, ed. Merrigan, T. and Haers, J. (Leuven: Leuven, University, 2000), 6182.Google Scholar See also Merrigan's, analysis of the epistemological framework of pluralist thought in “Religious Knowledge in the Pluralist Theology of Religions,” Theological Studies 58 (1997): 686707.Google Scholar

44 Haight, Roger, “Pluralist Christology is Orthodox,” in The Myth of Religious Superiority, 156.Google Scholar

45 See, for example, Lakeland's, PaulPostmodernity (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1997).Google Scholar For a clear, short summary of postmodernism for theological discourse, see Byron, J. Michael, “The Poor When They See It Will Be Glad: An Ecclesiology of Symbol as Integral to a Socially Relevant Post Modern North American Church” (STD diss., Weston Jesuit School of Theology, 2000), 132.Google Scholar

46 Haight, , Jesus, Symbol of God, 396.Google Scholar

47 Lakeland, Paul, “Not So Heterodox: In Defense of Roger Haight,” Commonweal, 26 January 2007, 22.Google Scholar

48 Lyotard, Jean-Francois, The Postmodern Condition, trans. Bennington, Geoff and Massumi, Brian (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), xxiv.Google Scholar

49 Kaplan, Stephen, Different Paths, Different Summits: A Model for Religious Pluralism (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2002), 321.Google Scholar

50 Newbigin, Leslie, “The Basis, Purpose, and Manner of Inter-Faith Dialogue,” Scottish Journal of Theology 30 (1977): 260.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

51 Fredericks, , Buddhists and Christians, 15.Google Scholar

52 See Yong, , Beyond the Impasse, 18ff.Google Scholar

53 Dennis Nineham points out that the church 1000 years ago understood virtually every part of the faith in radically different ways than we do today. The continuity is the great symbols, e.g., Cross, Eucharist, Heaven and Hell, and so on, but they are always being re-appropriated (Christianity: Medieval and Modern [London: SCM Press, 1993]). I was first led to this book by Hick, John's A Christian Theology of Religions (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1995), 127.Google Scholar

54 Fredericks, , Buddhist and Christians, 13.Google Scholar

55 This was part of the news briefings, “Signs of the Times,” in America, 5 February 2007, 6.

56 Philosophia perenis was first coined in 1540 by Agostino Steuco's De perenni philosophia and was later taken up by Leibniz in the seventeenth century. It asserts that there is a universal occurrence of religious and philosophical truth that cuts across all cultures and religions. It was popularlized in the modern period by Huxley, Aldous's classic The Perennial Philosophy (New York and London: Harper and Brothers, 1945).Google Scholar

57 Pragasam, Arul, “The God of Religious Pluralism and Christology,” in The Myriad Christ, 536.Google Scholar

58 Justin Martyr characterizes one who thinks God can be adequately named as one who “raves with a hopeless madness” (First Apology, chap. 61, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 10 vols., trans. and ed. Roberts, Alexander, Donaldson, James, and Cox, A. Cleveland [18851896; reprint, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1978], 1:183).Google Scholar

59 I am amazed by the criticisms of Roger Haight's assessment of the Christological doctrines of the early church in Jesus, Symbol of God. It is not that his conclusions are beyond critique. It is that his approach is really uncontroversial. That doctrines are historically conditioned, that they are aligned to philosophical categories, some of which we no longer accept, and that their principal reference (and relevance) is tied to and grounded in religious experience, are simply standard foundations in theological hermeneutics. Lakeland's defense of Haight is instructive here. He claims that the strength of Haight's postmodern approach is that he comes to grips with the implications of truths most people refuse to address (“Not So Heterodox,” 21).

60 Balthasar, Hans Urs von, The Grain of Wheat: Aphorisms, trans. Leiva-Merikakis, Erasmo (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1995), 21.Google Scholar

61 One example of either/or thinking might be the following: either Christ is absolute Lord and all other religious expressions are legitimate insofar as they recognize this or Christ is just one expression among others of authentic religiosity, and each claim is relative anyway. For a fine discussion of why and how this either/or thinking can be abandoned, see Boeve, Lieven, “Christus Postmodernus: An Attempt at Apophatic Chrisatology,” in The Myriad Christ, 578.Google Scholar

62 See Phan, Peter's description and theological justification in Doing Theology Interreligiously in the Postmodern Age (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2004).Google Scholar The Federation of Asian Bishops' Conference also describes Christianity needing to be “evangelized” by non-Christians in terms of greater spiritual integration and Aloysius Pieris describes part of the current dialogue as Christians coming to appreciate non-theistic expressions of Spirit. See Pieris, Aloysius, “The Holy Spirit and Asia's Religiousness” in Spiritus 7 (2007): 126–42.Google Scholar

63 Knitter, makes this point in Introducing Theologies of Religions, 9ffGoogle Scholar; I was originally led to it by my own interreligious dialogue with Buddhism and Mahayana's understanding of dependent co-origination.

64 In commenting on the Bhagavad-Gita, Joseph S. O'Leary points to something quite helpful: “Roman Catholic inclusivism is kept on a leash by the fear of relativism, or by an unwillingness to tolerate and live with contradictions. What the Indian epic [Mahabharata] suggests is that life itself is pluralistic, rife with the contradictions that we cannot fully sort out this side of eternity. The spiritual counsels of the Gita, set against this background, are no longer abstract principles but concrete responses to situations that they cannot entirely master” (“Moral Qualms and Mystic Claims” in Song Divine: Christian Commentaries on the Bhagavad Gita, ed. Cornille, Catherine [Leuven: Peeters, 2006], 4950Google Scholar).

65 See O'Connor, Kathleen, “Wild, Raging Creativity: The Scene in the Whirlwind (Job 38–41),” in A God So Near, ed. Strawn, Brent and Brown, Nancy (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2003), 171–79.Google Scholar